The great iconoclast George Seldes once said that tobacco was the only legal product that, when used as directed, kills you.
Hard to argue with that. That, in fact, is exactly what it does to several hundred thousand Americans a year. The trouble is, there is also a lot of collateral damage. People who get cancer from second-hand smoke. The billions we pay in added health care costs as a result of what smokers cost the health care system.
Not to mention the fires set by careless smokers. Eventually, increasingly burdened state governments realized how much this was costing them, and they sued. Eight years ago, 46 of the 50 states reached a monumental settlement with big tobacco.
Part of this Master Settlement Agreement was in fact aimed at stopping kids from smoking, which is of course the key. It would never occur to any rational adult to ever start. But even if that miracle happened, it was acknowledged that we would still be stuck with the societal costs from current smokers.
So among other things, the cancer sellers agreed to a settlement in which they would pay billions -- $206 billion to the states alone – over the next quarter-century. This year, however, the tobacco firms withheld $30 million from Michigan’s cut, saying they had lost market share.
Part of me hopes they get away with it. I mean, I took a few unpaid days off last month to get some things done, and think I should get to withhold some of my mortgage payment as a result. However, I am rather sure that wouldn’t work for me.
Years ago, they used to say that slavery was the great American dilemma. Nowadays, I think tobacco is. Though its use is declining, there are still millions and millions of Americans who are addicted.
Additionally, there are many whose livelihood depends on growing, harvesting, processing and packaging tobacco. Eliminating all those jobs would be a body blow to the economy, and inspire mass importing of bootleg cigarettes and other tobacco products.
As you may have guessed, I am not fond of the tobacco industry, but now fear that our state government may be falling victim to the threat of an addiction even more powerful than nicotine: money.
Big tobacco is paying state government millions as part of the price of doing business, and the state has gotten used to taking its cut. One alarming sign is that Michigan is not just using this money for medical expenses, but for an array of other programs. Remember when the lottery was supposed to fund education in this state?
What worries me is whether the state will ever be able to afford to let us quit smoking – or whether, in the end, Lansing will end up in league with tobacco maker Lorrilard, pushing cigarettes so the state can get its cut. Detroit, after all, makes money from its poorest citizens losing theirs in the casinos.
Can’t happen here? I wonder.